BRATTLEBORO—The Brattleboro Housing Authority celebrated two milestones on Aug 29.
The organization commemorated 50 years since its founding in 1962, and it marked one year since Tropical Storm Irene severely flooded its Melrose Terrace property.
“Let’s focus on the positive,” said Executive Director Chris Hart, as residents gathered for a cookout, complete with a birthday cake.
Hart joked that in three years, Melrose Terrace, a public housing complex with 80 apartments for seniors and disabled adults, will be eligible for the historic register.
Looking over the complex’s central courtyard, Hart said it was hard to believe that Irene’s floods had deposited 8 inches of mud on the spot where she was standing.
The flood displaced 26 residents. According to Hart, all who wanted to return are back in their homes.
Many of the residents don’t want to experience something like Irene ever again, but understand it’s possible it could happen again, Hart added.
“Today, I think people are doing pretty good,” she said. “It really feels like a celebration.”
According to Hart, the BHA was the second housing authority incorporated in Vermont. Creating the BHA required action by the federal, state, and town governments, she said.
Hart gave credit to the town for having the “foresight” to recognize the need for public housing in Brattleboro.
Looking through 50 years worth of minutes, Hart said the first 25 years of the housing authority centered on building the five properties — Melrose Terrace, Hayes Court, Moore Court, Ledgewood Heights, and the Samuel Elliot Apartments.
The second 25 years focused on developing programs and services, including the Section 8 voucher program.
The BHA’s insurance company, HAI Group, provided the cake, presented winter scarves to residents, and held a laptop raffle. The company donated gifts to residents who lost items in the flood.
According to Hart, HAI interviewed residents effected by Irene prior to the day’s celebration and purchased replacements for items. One resident requested a new Christmas cactus, said Hart.
“Our 50th year was probably our most memorable,” said Marshall Wheelock, vice-chair of the board of commissioners. “We’ve managed to pull through and show what ‘Vermont Strong’ is really about.”
The future is uncertain, he said referring to the BHA’s plans to relocate Melrose Terrace residents to new housing. But we’re here now, Wheelock said.
Later, Wheelock laughed about coming full circle. Melrose’s construction, he said, was financed partially through the sale of guaranteed bonds. As an employee at the First Vermont Bank, Wheelock handled the bond bid process.
Hart also thanked the town which supported the BHA despite “occasional rocky moments.” She gave a huge thanks to the emergency responders who helped evacuate residents the day before Irene.
“This was the safest place in Vermont [during Irene],” said Hart. “Nobody was here.”
Four Melrose Terrace residents commented on the events of the previous year while sitting at a table in the courtyard.
Shirley Leclair said that her apartment received little damage.
Pat Akeley, however, was displaced for about four weeks while cleaning crews removed an estimated 2 inches of mud from her apartment.
“Oh, my goodness, what am I going to do with that,” Akeley recalls thinking when she saw the mud.
Other than the mess, Akeley said, she didn’t lose anything of value. She has lived at Melrose Terrace since 1999.
Leclair said it was “devastating to see the apartments gutted out by water.” The water, she remembers, had “an evil smell.”
When asked how Melrose Terrace residents are faring one year later, Dottie Cripps said it depended on how much a person lost.
Cripps said she didn’t lose much.
“It’s natural to complain,” she said. “But when we stop and think, we’ve got nothing to complain about.”
The residents said they were following the news of BHA’s plans to build more housing units in Brattleboro and possibly relocate Melrose residents.
Spurred by Irene’s damage, regulatory requirements, permitting issues at Melrose Terrace, and the age of Hayes Court, the authority launched a project to develop new affordable housing units.
The project should take three to five years to complete, said Hart.
According to Hart, Brattleboro needs 250 affordable housing units to fill the gap created by last year’s Brooks House fire and Irene. That number does not, however, cover future affordable housing needs, said Hart.
The Whetstone Housing Alternative Study process started in April with a series of committee meetings. The group, with 14 members representing the BHA, Windham/Windsor Housing Trust, the town, Windham Regional Commission, Brattleboro Area Affordable Housing, the West Brattleboro Association, and residents from Melrose Terrace and the Glen Park Mobile Home Park, held the first of four public meetings on June 7.
Leclair said that Melrose Terrace’s style of construction — single-story, semi-private, buildings — would never be built again.
A man who has lived at Melrose Terrace for 11 years and declined to give his name said the BHA should fix the buildings it had.
“I don’t think they need to [build new],” he said.
Six potential sites
The Whetstone Alternative Housing Study has narrowed its list of 25 sites to six.
The six selected sites include Melrose Terrace, Hayes Court, Moore Court, the site of the R.S. Roberts car dealership on Fairground Road, a portion of the parking lot at Academy School, and parcel of vacant land off Route 5 and Partridge Road called the Algiers Meadow.
The properties could provide a combined total of 260 units, said Hubbard.
Residents expressed multiple views at the study committee’s third public meeting on Aug. 30, in the Melrose Terrace community room.
At the meeting, committee members presented a short list of six preferred building sites. Many residents said they didn’t want to leave Melrose Terrace. Others said they trusted the BHA’s decisions.
Adam Hubbard, a project manager with Stevens & Associates, presented updated information to the audience.
He said that developing new housing properties served to provide residents with safe, quality, affordable housing. Hubbard reminded the audience that the BHA must also consider community, town, state, and federal regulations.
“The residents are the priority here,” he said. “But it’s not the only priority. There’s a lot of interests and stakeholders here.”
Federal regulations do not allow seniors, people with disabilities, or child care facilities to be housed in a flood plain, said Hart.
Melrose’s residents will eventually move to a new housing complex.
“We all love Melrose,” Hart said. “But, the laws have changed, the rules have changed, the environment has changed.”
Hubbard said that the plan to redevelop three properties at once is “unprecedented.”
At this early stage, the BHA is considering moving Melrose Terrace residents to its Moore Court property on School Street, and Moore Court residents to Melrose.
Moore Court provides family housing.
The BHA may swap the properties’ uses, redeveloping Moore Court into senior and disabled adult housing and Melrose Terrace into family housing.
Federal regulations allow for family housing in flood plains. Hart and Hubbard guessed that the government thinks families can more easily evacuate their own children than communities can evacuate seniors.
The redevelopment plan comes 18 units shy of the community’s current housing need based on committee numbers.
Today, Melrose Terrace, Hayes Court, and Moore Court provide 178 housing units, said Hubbard. The community lost 100 units between the Brooks House fire, and flood damage to the Mountain Home and Glen Park Mobile Home Parks added to the losses.
Hubbard said that the committee reviewed the potential six sites against criteria such as cost of construction, proximity to services and community areas, aesthetics and quality of space, safety, and building effects on natural resources.
Hubbard said property ownership also played a role in narrowing the list. The BHA’s ownership of Melrose, Hayes, and Moore sent them to the top of the list.
Because of the ownership criterion, the Academy School lot, owned by the town school district, and the Algiers Meadow, owned by Guilford Preservation, Inc., may not make the final cut.
When asked why seniors would want to live near a school, Hubbard answered that planners are trying to return to mixed-population neighborhoods to reverse recent population patterns of isolation.
Redeveloping the Melrose Terrace and Hayes properties will require rebuilding in areas outside the flood plain, said Hubbard.
On the drawing board for Melrose Terrace is tearing down the seven units in the floodway and building second floors on the remaining buildings. Hubbard said the Melrose Terrace structures are sound structures and should be used if possible.
“Efficiency of cost means you’re building up and using elevators,” Hubbard responded when residents said they liked the privacy of single-story buildings.
Hubbard said the BHA is also considering building a flood wall deeper into the property. The engineering of the wall would provide the Whetstone a little flood plain while protecting the buildings.
“It must be said, this is an idea,” he said. “This is serious work, and serious work in a flood hazard zone.”
The Hayes buildings, meanwhile, “have outlived their useful life,” said Hart.
The BHA constructed Hayes in the early 1970s. The buildings are not adequately handicapped assessable, and use electric heat. The BHA had started a redevelopment plan for Hayes prior to Irene. The floods, however, caused the housing authority to shift gears and expand the project to Melrose.
Moore Court is also due for repairs and upgrades.
The irony is, said Hart, Melrose Terrace is structurally sound. This is why the BHA “keeps trying to hold onto a part of the property.”
“We have miles to go before we have the final answer,” said Hubbard about plans for the six properties.
The alternative housing committee has made some rough site plans for the six properties. It will continue vetting the sites and will present detailed plans at a public meeting and information session on Sept. 20 at 7 p.m. at Hayes Court.
To learn more about the project visit brattleborohousing.wordpress.com.